What Is the True Role of a Spiritual Teacher

A true spiritual teacher strips away all that is unnecessary so that the student can see enlightenment for what it is

Spiritual teacher / guru concept

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Introduction: The Role of a Spiritual Teacher Is Vastly Misunderstood

It goes without saying that spiritual teachers are incredibly helpful people. In a world where there are so many lies and misconceptions, a spiritual teacher helps light the path back to the inner world within each of us. However, due to deceptions that lead people towards external answers, the role of the spiritual teacher is vastly misunderstood. The spiritual teacher is often expected to be some kind of ‘Truth Candy’ dispenser, and if the seeker gets enough of this mystical candy, then “Whammo!”, enlightenment comes.

But that is not how it works, and because of these ideas, I am writing here about the true role of the spiritual teacher.

What Is Meant By the Term “Spiritual Teacher”

A spiritual teacher is like a person holding a torch. From the torch springs forth light to illuminate the surroundings. When a seeker comes in contact with a true teacher, he or she may not really know how to respond. The responses can be varied, including:

  • They want to take the teacher’s torch or think that that’s the type of light that they should be shining
  • They are immediately appalled at everything that they see, blame the teacher, and run away
  • They like how the teacher looks holding the torch and choose to sit and adore the light instead of igniting their own torch.

These, of course, are incorrect responses. Sometimes the student will be wise enough to bring his torch in contact with the teacher’s, and from that contact, the student’s awareness is momentarily ignited. But it becomes the student’s job to tend to that light. If it is not tended to, the light may quickly get extinguished—like fire on wet wood. Then the student moves through a cycle of returning again and again to the teacher to re-ignite that flame… until she has done the work to make an acceptable space that can hold the heat and brilliance of the fire, which is nothing more than their own amazing awareness.

Turning the Student to the Inner Journey

One of the most important responsibilities of the spiritual teacher is to turn the student inward and to teach her how to learn. Because the spiritual path is not one of rote memorization, the student must often be untaught ways of learning. The student must also be taught how to engage with rationality and to know when to let it go.

This isn’t traded for some kind of misguided blind faith. Instead, the growth of the student’s inner knowing is the intended sounding bell for truth and for guidance through the experiential journey of the spiritual path. Without that inner compass, the student becomes dependent on the teacher and his wisdom in seeing clearly.

But the true teacher has no intention of being the permanent eyes for any student, so the teacher will continue to guide the student back to her inner journey again and again until the flame of awareness burns on its own.

Why a True Spiritual Teacher Won’t Work With All Seekers

It is true that spiritual teachers don’t work with all spiritual seekers. This isn’t out of an ego game, but instead, it comes from a profound and loving space of helping those who are ready to go into these deep places, while letting those who are not yet equipped for it continue to grow on their own.

The spiritual teacher truly understands that there’s a divine plan at work, and that if the student is not yet ready, he should in no way interfere with that lack of readiness with some kind of idea of ‘helping’ the student get somewhere quickly. This is very a common misconception in underdeveloped spiritual teachers, who think that everyone needs to be enlightened right now.

In truth, everyone needs to be exactly where they are right now. People are where they are, and that’s perfect. But for those who are ready to take the next step, teachers will often challenge them to see if those inner seeds of readiness are actually ready to sprout.

From this space, the teacher may crack jokes or make off-color comments to see if the student is paying attention. The teacher may be mean or act like a buffoon, depending on what the lesson is [which could be something like illuminating the great cosmic joke of this world and how silly we are in taking ourselves so seriously].

The spiritual teacher may do a lot of things that may seem counter to the popular image of a profound, serious, and quiet individual, who walks, talks and acts in a certain way. The unprepared student will say to him or herself, “This can’t be a spiritual teacher. He acts like such a fool.” The student who is ready will say to herself, “I am just as ridiculous as this person here. Perhaps, I shouldn’t take myself so seriously.” And then the student will laugh, and the teacher upon seeing this little moment of recognition will laugh. And the teaching will already have begun.

The Different Types of Spiritual Teachers

For as much as the term ‘spiritual teacher’ gets thrown around these days, it is not a catch-all phrase. There are quite a few different types of teachers out there. All of them have different ranges of abilities, and it’s equally important that those of you who are teachers understand your role and your limitations. We need teachers of all sorts and kinds because of all the pain and illusion that has enveloped this world, but we also need teachers to understand what they can and can’t do. You would not go to an auto mechanic to get your computer fixed. So why would you go to a kirtan teacher to learn how to meditate? You’d go to a meditation teacher for that.

I like to make up loose categories for lots of things on the spiritual path. I say ‘loose’ because they’re made up, but they can help to create a framework of understanding. I often describe spiritual teachers in three main groups, and then there are the masters. Here’s a simple break-down that you can choose to accept or not:

Level 1 Spiritual Teachers

They know their tradition, and they are guardians of it. They are unlikely to have awakened, and their main purpose is to help people learn their specific practices and belief system. This is like a Christian priest who knows the Bible very well.

Level 2 Spiritual Teachers

They know a specific tradition, and they had a profound spiritual opening through it. This is like a yoga teacher who once had an amazing spiritual experience through yoga. So this person teaches yoga to help others to achieve similar experiences.

Level 3 Spiritual Teachers

They have had an awakening, and they teach across multiple disciplines. They can interweave a lot of different religious and spiritual traditions because they can sense how things interconnect.

The final category is for the masters, who simply are. They don’t need to teach, but they can. They can use whatever tool [meditation, hugging, laughing, screaming, etc.] in the present moment to do the work they feel called to do. Their very presence and being already creates shifts in accordance to the divine plan, so it doesn’t matter what they do in the external world. Because doing and action in the external world is always secondary to being and presence, and the master embodies this awareness.

Enlightening the Path of the Seeker

In so many ways, the purpose of the spiritual teacher is about helping to illuminate the path. The spiritual path itself has become obscured by confusion. People think they have to meditate for a certain number of years, or they think they need to memorize the Bible or Buddhist tenets. They’re caught up in all the wrong ways, and then they are exceedingly disappointed when their efforts don’t get them anything.

Of course, you may already hear another part of the problem—people are trying to ‘get’ things. There’s truly nothing to get from the spiritual path, not even experiences. At each level of the spiritual path, the old parts fall away. Where words and ideas helped to create a structure, that scaffolding must be torn away. Consequently, as spiritual experiences and connections help to cultivate an even deeper awareness, those too must eventually be let go. Because spirituality isn’t in an experience or in an idea—it’s in us.

The true spiritual teacher knows this, and this teacher helps students to tear away all those things that are in the way of this awareness, so that the students simply see that enlightenment and the being of love that they wish to be is simply who they already are.

This was first published in the March 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Jim Tolles
Jim Tolles is a spiritual teacher, healer, and writer. He is the author of the ebook: Everyday Spirituality: Cultivating an Awakening. He teaches students around the world via online video conversations, and he blogs regularly. He currently resides in Northern California.


  1. Thanks for explaining the many different purposes of a spiritual teacher. I loved learning that the role of a spiritual teacher is to enlighten the seeker’s path. I think it would be critical to choose a spiritual teacher that has many years of experience.


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